Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Paella gets demystified so you can channel your inner Spanish pitmaster, without a recipe.
I love paella, that iconic Spanish dish named after the pan in which it is cooked. The technique can be reduced to a few simple steps, all of which are important. You will need short grain rice (called "Bomba" in Spain, but Arborio makes a good subsitute), saffron, stock, aromatics, and add-ins of your choosing. Unlike risotto, the simmering stock is added all at once and needs only one quick stir before finishing. This is what allows soccarat, a crispy, just-shy-of-burnt and oh-so-delicious crust to form at the bottom.
In the traditional paella Valenciana it’s typical to include snails. If Thumper has been nibbling on your lettuces and flowers you can throw him in as well. The point, though, is that it’s easy to be inventive with paella as you master the basics. Try sausage, chicken, rabbit, shrimp, shellfish, or a combination thereof. That paella pan is your canvas and you can go all Picasso if you want to.
Paella is always best cooked outside over lump wood charcoal, like oak. Now is not the time for charcoal briquettes. In Spain they frequently use a tri-legged gas apparatus, which makes it certifiably okay to cook on propane. Alternatively, you can cook the paella on a gas cook top. You can also cook a paella in the oven, but I’m not a big fan of that method because you'll miss out on those crisped soccarat bits on the bottom.
How to Make Paella Without a Recipe
1. Prep all of your ingredients, since paella moves quickly once it gets going. If using dried peppers (I like Nora, Ancho, or Cascobel), rehydrate them in boiling water for an hour or two, and then seed and destem them. If using red bell peppers, roast them over your gas range, then cut them into strips. Chop up half an onion and sliver a couple garlic cloves. Open up any cans or jars, if you're using any. If any of your vegetables need blanching, now is the time. If you're including chicken or rabbit, gently brown it in a pan and set aside. Bring 3 cups of stock to a simmer, add a generous pinch of saffron, and leave the stock simmering.
2. Start your fire. When it's hot, place your paella pan over it and heat up a glug of olive oil. Add your chopped onion and slivered garlic. Cook until onion starts to soften. In Spain, they like their garlic a little bit more brown and bitter than in America. Add salt to taste.
3. Add a 1/2 cup of short-grained rice (ideally Bomba, but Arborio works too) and stir a few times until it becomes translucent. Add your meats now too -- chicken or rabbit, diced Spanish-style chorizo, helix snails.
4. Here's where your paella departs from the risotto model. Add all 3 cups of the warm stock, and a generous sprinkling of salt. Stir no more than once.
5. Top with peas; other vegetables of your choosing (haricots, diced tomatoes, or very tiny Brussels sprouts); clams, mussels or other mollusks (use the smallest, tightest ones you can find); shrimp of any size, peeled and deveined (and defrosted, if frozen), etc. Make it look pretty. If you're using shelled mollusks, cover the pan with a lid or foil.
6. Resist the temptation to stir! The actual cooking process takes about 25 minutes or so on a steady flame. By this time, your mollusks should be opened up and singing opera to you. Discard any recidivists whose shells haven't opened up.
If you've done this correctly, you should have that slightly burnt bottom crust -- lucky you! Serve immediately.
How about a few more classic Spanish dishes to complete the menu? Try these:
Photos by Sarah Shatz